Erik Larson has taken us inside a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, filled with magic, mystery and murder. He has taken us to the U.S. Embassy in Germany in 1933, where we meet the American ambassador as Hitler was rising. He has taken us inside Churchill’s Blitz, with new elements even Churchill scholars claim they did not know.
And now he is telling us a ghost story. Emphasis on the “telling.”
Larson is one of the world’s most popular “narrative historians,” and his most unusual project yet has just arrived. The audio-only novella. “No One Goes Alone” (via Penguin Random House audio) will likely be plugged into the ears of Larson fans everywhere. “I’ve always loved ghost stories,” says Larson, 67, chatting at an Upper East Side bar near his home in New York. “I think I read ‘The Haunting of Hell House’ ten times. This one is a hybrid of cozy and scary. Cozy because we think back on our childhoods under the covers being read to, or in blankets around a fire.” Sounds like he is catching a relatable moment.
The author does not do the narrating — a British actor does that — but Larson has a role too. “I have a brand to protect, so I do narrate the source material. I am an historian and I don’t make anything up. And there are a lot of obsessives out there looking for mistakes.”
He takes his role as an historian seriously, and this one, while fiction, is based in reality.
It follows the ghost-hunting exploits of the 19th-century psychologist and philosopher William James who travels to investigate a haunted house on a fictional island off the coast of England. The expedition takes a surprising and deadly turn. Originally, Larson considered serializing it on his website for free. But his publisher responded quickly. (“Give it away?”)
That reaction is no surprise. Larson’s books are all almost immediate bestsellers. They generally take about three years to write. He usually spends a few months doing research and writing a lengthy detailed proposal, including an essay on what makes this book different and why you should buy it. Once it’s a go, he dives in. John Emerson, who was America’s ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration, read “In the Garden of Beasts” twice: once before he moved to Berlin and once while in the job. “I learned so many things about our history, including the fact that our State Department was as anti-Semitic as Germany.”
When Larson — the father of three daughters — has free time, well, he reads. “Mostly fiction,” he says, “since I deal with non-fiction all the time.” Right now, he is enjoying Kazuo Ishigura’s “Klara and the Sun” and starting in on a Faulkner binge. “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles, is one of his favorites of the last few years.
The new project is about a very old — and endlessly popular — subject: those souls or spirits of the dead who interact with the living. Just think of Christmases past, present and future, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” and Demi Moore. CBS has a new sitcom, “Ghosts” starting in October. My hunch is millions will soon be listening and shivering at the same time.